Just like their own parents did, Luconda Dager and her sisters keep the family's Lebanese traditions alive. "It's all about the food," she says. "It all starts in the kitchen."
December 2013 Issue
Velvet Ice Cream Co. president Luconda Dager invites us into her kitchen to share in her family’s food traditions.
Luconda Dager leans in, showing the gaggle of young girls how to cautiously cut baklawa, Lebanon’s twin sister to Greece’s better known baklava. The secret, she divulges, is to cut the mound of tender, paper-thin dough before it’s buttered and baked into crispy layers that glisten with a varnish of sticky, caramelized syrup.
“It makes the whole thing really rich and crisp,” Dager says. “Using a baster to butter it is another great trick. Our family has been making these same recipes for so long that each generation adds its own tips and tweaks, which seem to make them even better.”
Dager’s gleaming kitchen is warmed not just by the oven that runs nearly nonstop during the holidays, but by Luconda and her sisters — the fourth generation to gather, giggle, chop, mix, scoop and bake in their family’s hometown of Utica. Handed-down recipes from a tattered bound book have been holiday staples for the Dagers since the family first came to Ohio from Zahlé, Lebanon, more than 100 years ago.
In those early days, some 40 family members from Lebanon and other parts of Ohio would make the trip each December to Utica, where Joseph Dager had laid down roots. There, he worked at Ritchey’s Confectionery, which led him to found Velvet Ice Cream Co. The company now churns out more than 6 million gallons of ice cream every year from its Licking County headquarters.
“Those early Christmases would get loud. Really loud,” recalls Dager, as her gentle smile spreads to a wide grin. “To me, Christmas means those great smells coming from the kitchen and dozens of family members from near and far, dancing arm in arm, from the kitchen to every room in the house. Lebanese music would pour from an old tape player that we carried with us.”
The dubke, a traditional Lebanese dance, locked not just arms but hearts every Christmas in the Dager kitchen.
“It was so rowdy and festive that I sometimes felt a little down when the party ended,” Dager says. “But when I need a little of that Christmas feeling, there’s a great YouTube video of a dubke flash mob at the Beirut airport that I love to watch. It always makes me smile.”
Holiday gatherings are now a little smaller, but no quieter, and start in Dager’s kitchen. Family matriarch Tatla, mother to Luconda and sisters, Joanne, Suzanne and Andre, has ensured the family’s Lebanese heritage is preserved and passed down. She’s turned the reins over to Luconda, her eldest, who helps oversee the cooking, which begins weeks before Dec. 25.
There are traditional Middle Eastern savories. A Christmas-hued tabbouleh salad of diced tomatoes, diced cucumber, parsley and bulgur wheat is brightly dressed with lemon juice, salt and pepper. The women make hummus from chickpeas and baba ghanouj from eggplant, both served with warmed pita.
During the summer, the girls pick grape leaves from the backyard that they carefully clean, pat dry and can for use in December. At Christmastime, the rolled leaves are stuffed with a piquant mixture of meat and rice and gently steamed in a Dutch oven. Kibbeh nayeh, another holiday favorite, is made of very finely ground lamb and beef. The meat is ground multiple times and then combined with bulgur, pureed onion and spices.
“It’s delicious ... like liver pâté. And we eat it raw with our hands or like dip with warm pita,” says Dager. “But it’s also great fried — especially the leftovers.”
There are a number of tools and features that Dager says are indispensable in her kitchen, not just for holiday cooking, but year-round.
“Being Lebanese, we use a lot of garlic,” she says. “I use it in most all of my American and Lebanese recipes. We love fresh garlic and the flavor it creates. I never use dried, so I just can’t live without my garlic press.”
Another staple in Dager’s kitchen is a well-loved, blackened-with-use Lodge cast iron skillet. “The heat-retention qualities are great for providing a perfectly even cooking temperature without any hot spots.”
The best part, Dager adds, is that cast iron can seamlessly go from the stovetop to the oven. Her kitchen’s shiny, oversized granite island offers the ideal naturally cooled surface for rolling massive sheets of baklawa pastry or for parking piping-hot pans pulled from the double oven.
Not nearly so new is the maamoul mold. This ancient wooden gadget has been used by generations of Dager women to make the much-loved, date- stuffed shortbread cookies. Rich dough is filled with minced dates and rose water, then pressed into pretty star shapes, baked crisp and sprinkled with powdered sugar.
For the Dagers, the sweet baklawa and maamoul are always served warm with a scoop of ice cream — cinnamon, pumpkin pie or Old Tyme Vanilla. The mammoth group that fills the kitchen at Christmas has long served as an informal R&D focus group for the family business, sampling both the latest and the traditional Velvet Ice Cream recipes, loudly deliberating on taste and new flavor concoctions while sharing amusing family stories and history.
Family recipes are easy to pass down. But it takes a little more commitment to keep alive the entirety of the Dager’s Lebanese heritage, which is so tied to the kitchen.
“Just like our parents did with us, my sisters and I are careful to share the music and stories with our children, so they’ll be able to pass those down to their kids,” says Dager. “And of course they help with the cooking. It’s all about the food. It all starts in the kitchen.”
The Dager Family's Baklawa Recipe
2 pounds unsalted butter
2 pounds filo dough
(long packs/large sheets)
5 cups walnuts
1 cup sugar
4 tablespoons rose water
4 cups sugar
2 cups water
2 tablespoons rose water
1 tablespoon fresh-squeezed
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Melt the butter slowly in a saucepan, taking care not to burn it. Brush the melted butter on the bottom of a 13-by-17-inch sheet pan. Set aside remaining butter.
Place first half (one pound) of the Filo dough on bottom of the pan. Handle gently and do not allow it to dry out.
For the nut mixture, ground the walnuts in a food processor. Toss the ground walnuts, sugar and rose water in a large bowl. Evenly distribute nut mixture over top of dough. Place the second pound of dough on top of nuts.
Cover sheet pan with wax paper, tucking it under the edges to hold it in place. Using the electric knife and the yardstick, cut the entire pan on an angle in one direction (make cuts 1 inch apart). Remove cut wax paper. Replace with a new layer of wax paper for diagonal cuts in the opposite direction. This will create a lattice pattern. Remove second layer of wax paper. Using the baster, drizzle the cut pastry with rendered butter.
Bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown. Turn down oven to 200 degrees and continue baking for 45 minutes.
While baklawa is baking, combine the sugar and water in a saucepan. Cook syrup until it strings (220 degrees). Let cool, then add the rose water (available at ethnic and specialty stores) and lemon juice.
Remove cookies from oven. Let cool until slightly warm. Pour syrup evenly over baked cookies when they are slightly warm. Store in airtight container or freeze for later. Makes 150 pieces.